Donna Payne is the Human Rights Campaign's Deputy Director for Diversity. She's also one of the highest profile out black lesbians in Washington D.C. and a friend of Rod 2.0. Donna was gracious enough to share with Rod 2.0 her personal story of meeting the late Dr. Dorothy Height for the first time, and, the how the "godmother of civil rights" became an inspiration.
Reflections on Dr. Dorothy Height from an Out Black Lesbian by Donna Payne
The first time I met Dorothy Height, I was 29, a member of the Political Congress of Black Women, and struggling to find my place in the civil rights movement as a black lesbian.
It seemed back then, that I had an awful choice to make: I could ignore my sexual orientation and remain active with the Civil Rights movement. Or, I could come out and forget about following those aspirations. I felt the African-American Civil Rights community would never accept an out Black Lesbian. But then again, I hadn’t talked to Dorothy Height.
I had read about Dr. Height and was simply in awe. Dorothy Height had been mentored by Mary McCloud Bethune. In the Sixties, she organized "Wednesday’s in Mississippi" which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding. I knew that she regularly advised First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and encouraged appointments of African American women during President Lyndon Johnson’s term.
One day, while ushering at an event given by the Political Congress of Black Women, I got to meet her. Far from being tongue-tied, I had a million questions beginning with, "What can I do to help the world like you have done?" Dr. Height politely asked my name and then said, "Donna, just be yourself and get involved wherever you feel comfortable." It was transformative. I replayed that message over and over for years: "Be yourself, do whatever feels comfortable."
Donna Payne continues and watch Dr. Dorothy Height at the 1997 Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner AFTER THE JUMP ...
Fast forward eight years. By then, I had worked on campaigns, volunteered with the Young Democrats of America, come out of the closet and was now working with the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy organization, on outreach to people of color. At HRC, where everything came together, my work included working with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) where HRC sits on the Executive Committee. At the time, Dorothy Height chaired the board and she was very welcoming, even giving our executive director the LCCR Hubert Humphrey Award for work on social justice issues.
In 2001, I traveled with the LCCR to the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism in South Africa. I was asked to represent the LGBT community in the coalition. I remember my first coalition meeting where Dr. Height asked my opinion about the goals of the Sexual Orientation caucus. I hesitated, thinking she must be talking to someone else until I was nudged and told, "Dr. Height is addressing you!" I quickly came to my senses and made my suggestions, all the while feeling a tad unprepared.
Later, Dr. Height sought me out and said, "Don’t be scared to speak up. We value your input and will support the caucus, that is why you are here with us." Those words never left me. I knew that there was much work to be done on bridging the gap between my two worlds—LGBT and African American—but I finally believed it could actually happen. And that dream took a new turn because Dr. Height told me to "speak up."" Let's just say I've never stopped.
That was many years ago and I count as a blessing that I had many more opportunities to be in Dr. Height's company. Her clarity around inclusivity and her commitment to civil rights for all of us was always crystal clear. And now her message of standing up, of being heard, or speaking out for injustice is what I pass on to young people. Her legacy for our community is deep and broad, but I, for one, will never forget the lessons she taught one scared, young Black lesbian who felt unwelcome in her community. It changed everything from my perspective to my life's work and, like so many others, I will always be grateful for Dr. Dorothy Height.